What the U.S. Should Learn From China's Population Decline

The U.S. remains the top destination for the world's immigrants—but it must be careful not to squander its immigration advantage.


For the first time in more than 60 years, China's population has declined. That last happened in 1961 when a devastating famine spurred by Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward killed tens of millions of citizens. This time, it's the result of a decadeslong one-child policy, a rapidly aging population, and the simple fact that more people leave the country than migrate there.

That last point is a critical one, and it offers an important lesson as the U.S. navigates a dwindling population growth rate. For decades, the U.S. has been the world's top destination for immigrants, while China is nearly dead-last when it comes to immigrants as a proportion of its population. As American politicians continue to focus on competition with China, they should recognize that free immigration is a critical way to maintain a talented workforce and avoid population issues like China now faces.

Like many other Western countries, the U.S. largely owes its current population growth to immigrants. About 86 percent of U.S. population growth last year was the result of immigration, according to the nonpartisan Brookings Institution. China attracts far fewer newcomers, partially due to its strict immigration policy. United Nations data indicate that China received just 200,000 immigrants between 2010 and 2020. "The United States, by contrast, added more than 6 million new immigrant residents," writes Washington Post columnist Philip Bump. "China's increase from immigration was about 0.01 percent of its total population; the United States' was almost 2 percent."

In recent years, China's leaders have experimented with solutions to the impending population growth problem. They moved from a one-child policy to a two-child policy in 2016, then to a three-child policy in 2021, and then scrapped punishments for families who had more than three kids. But immigration reform has remained modest at best. Policies "relating to the facilitation of visas and residence permits, including long-term or permanent residence permits for specific high-level foreign talent and the establishment of immigration service centres" were expanded nationwide in August 2019, according to economists Frank Bickenbach and Wan-Hsin Liu, but these largely only benefit the most highly skilled migrants. "For most less skilled migrants, Chinese immigration policies have become rather more restrictive."

Without a record of accepting newcomers, both attracting and retaining immigrants becomes difficult. From 2004 to 2016, just 10,000 people were granted permanent residency in China, with even lower naturalization numbers. "Foreign migrants in China are usually temporary sojourners, rather than long-term immigrants" for this reason, wrote Dutch researcher Tabitha Speelman in a 2020 article for The Diplomat.

How much does immigration matter for a nation that, even in decline, still has 1.41 billion people? In certain respects, quite a bit. It's estimated that more than a quarter of the Chinese population will be over 60 by 2030, according to the Migration Policy Institute. This—coupled with projections that the Chinese population could fall by nearly 50 percent by 2100—will severely hamper its economic prospects. More immediately, in the highly skilled technological fields where Chinese leadership would like to excel, losing home-grown talent and failing to attract foreign experts could prove damaging. The U.S., faced with similar issues of aging and specialization, should take note.

At its core, immigration represents an influx of human capital, important for "low-skill" and "high-skill" fields alike. But migration rates are also important in what they signal about the state of a country and the lives that foreigners can imagine building there. The same things that keep immigrants away from China—an authoritarian government that commits human rights abuses and suppresses all manner of expression and dissent, coupled with an economy rattled by ruinous government-imposed "COVID Zero" measures—ultimately drive natives away, too. Brain drain is a thorn in the side of the Chinese Communist Party, with one senior official complaining in 2013, "the number of top talents lost in China ranks first in the world."

America offers benefits that China simply can't. Though it has a smaller share of the global population, the U.S. is home to a hugely outsized amount of wealth and innovation, and a disproportionate number of the world's top universities. As of 2019, the U.S. was by far the top destination for Chinese immigrants. Ninety percent of Chinese students who'd received STEM doctorates in the U.S. were still in the country a decade after graduation, according to the National Science Foundation. (Though some American politicians and intelligence officials have warned that there might be Chinese government–affiliated spies embedded in this population, that concern has been false in all but a handful of cases.)

That said, the U.S. may be squandering its immigration advantage. Over half of America's top startups were founded by immigrants, but the U.S. has no visa pathway specifically devoted to foreigners who want to start a business and remain in the country. Massive visa backlogs mean that thousands of talented immigrants are caught in a decadeslong holding pattern, unable to secure permanent residency. International students are losing interest in the U.S. as a destination.

Too often, American policy makers emulate China when they try to compete with it. This is a mistake on everything from industrial policy to immigration policy. To avoid demographic and economic decline, the U.S. should embrace its advantage as a nation that attracts more people than it loses.